Normal Natural Shit: Chris Johanson speaks to Nadiah Fellah

Chris Johanson, Normal Natural Shit That Happens, 2010 | Acrylic on wood, 24.5 x 34 inches. Courtesy Altman Siegel Gallery, San Francisco.

Chris Johanson is an artist that likes to keep it pretty simple. His work has been a fixture in the Bay Area art scene for the past several years, made memorable by the bright palette that has become his signature. His new paintings, currently exhibited alongside works by Matt Keegan and Charley Harper in a group show at Altman Siegel Gallery in San Francisco, are “celebration-of-life-and-death paintings” he tells me. I recently spoke with Johanson from his bungalow overlooking the Hollywood Hills in Silver Lake, Los Angeles. Our conversation and more pics after the jump.  —Nadiah Fellah, San Francisco contributor

Considering Perceptions, So Much For That Area, 2010 | Acrylic on found wood, 33 x 36 1/2 inches. Courtesy Altman Siegel Gallery, San Francisco.

NF: The first piece in the show that caught my eye was Untitled Portrait of a Man Leaving in a Boat (2010). It appeals to one’s imagination because you get the sense of this figure embarking on a journey. Is it a self-portrait?
First of all, I’d like to mention that that piece is on found wood.  All the work I do, if it’s on wood, I like to use wood that I find. I’d been working on that painting for years actually. I just started it and let it sit in my studio for a long time. It’s a portrait of what I think could be anybody’s journey, because you’re born by yourself and you die by yourself.  You take with you what you take with you, and maybe you meet up with people along the way. The figure has generic features. Sometimes I think if you make the figures with less features, they’re more realistic, because people can relate to them more.

So, it’s like insert yourself or someone you know here.
Yeah, and that’s what I want to do, because I always want to bring people into the work. I like to make the work inviting. I want people to celebrate life and death through the work.

The seascape makes it seem like a west-coast inspired picture. I know you were in San Francisco, lived for a time in Portland, and now LA. Do you find living on the coast inspirational?
I think that my environment always comes into my work a great deal. I only lived on the east coast for about two years of my life total. But I’m a west coast person. I’m pulled to this coast, and I hope not to have to live anywhere else because I vibrate with what’s happening here.

Untitled Painting of a Man Leaving in Boat, 2010 | Acrylic on wood, 40.5 x 37.5 inches. Courtesy Altman Siegel Gallery, San Francisco.

You mentioned that many of your pieces are on found wood. Can you talk about your decision to use recycled material?
I think the idea of going to a wood yard and getting a bunch of new wood seems silly because there’s all this beautiful wood that’s already out there looking for its third home. It seems unnecessary. I try to have an environmental attitude about it, but I’m not about putting people down for buying new wood. It started more as a necessity because I was so poor. I think I had environmental concerns when I was younger, but I never changed the habit. It seems like a positive thing to do because it makes people think about all the waste we create. Like right now I’m sitting on a chair that I made out of all wood that I found. And that’s kind of what I do. Me and my wife, we made everything in our house.

So, you guys both make furniture from found materials?
I make furniture, and she makes textiles. She made the curtains, I made the table, she made the lights, and it’s just more fun. It’s more fun to use what’s out there.

I also look for paint on the street all the time. I have a big basket on my bike for stuff, and I find that people throw everything out. Most of the paint that’s in my studio, which is in my garage, is collected from around the neighborhood. It’s not hard. It would be hard for a house builder, but it’s not hard for what I’m doing. It seems like I’d be wasting some resources if I didn’t use what I found.

Installation view, Chris Johanson, Charley Harper, & Matt KeeganAltman Siegel Gallery, San Francisco

What about the painting hanging next to the boat picture, Normal Natural Shit That Happens (2010)? It’s much more abstract.
It is pretty abstract. Well, those are heads. They’re people, with all the lines connecting them to show all the different ways that people are connected to each other, and all the different colors represent all the different possibilities of those connections. And the different colors on the heads represent all the different experiences that make up an individual’s perspective and lifestyle. You know, like what makes a person gravitate towards being politically left or politically right, or religion, or drugs, or whatever it is. What makes somebody live a short life or a long life.

It seems like you have worked on some of these paintings for a period of time. Can you talk about your process, how you approach and re-approach pieces in your studio?
Well, with the larger piece, Considering Perceptions…, I started that piece at my parents’ house after my uncle passed away. Soon after that I went back to it because my grandmother did hospice at their house. I painted a lot of paintings at that time, and that one in particular I continued working on for about two years after that, and only just finished it about three months ago. So the piece has a lot of energy in it about my family and questions about life and death and how you live your life.

The last piece in the show (I Don’t Know, People Are Frail, 2006-09) I had been working on off and on for awhile. I usually work on thirty to forty paintings at a time. And I don’t like to paint the same color on a painting more than once. So whatever color I mix, I put it on every single painting [in my studio], for the most part.

I Don't Know, People Are Frail, 2006-09 | Acrylic and latex on wood, 16.75 x 22 inches. Courtesy Altman Siegel Gallery, San Francisco.

That’s interesting because your paintings are so distinct for their bright colors. I think of you as a very conscious colorist.
I have to paint that particular color on pretty much every painting, but I can only put it on each painting once. That’s kind of my ritual. There’s a lot of information about the paintings on the backs, too, that give some hints at what was going on. A lot of times I will show my paintings with the backs visible... A lot of the time, they’re actually two-sided paintings. You can tell more about what was going on in my life at the time it was created.

Is there anything else you want to add about your work that’s up, or what you’re working on?
It’s all the same body of work, it’s all connected. There’s no 'new,' really. Same brain with its slight mutations of time. (laughs)

Chris Johanson, Charley Harper, & Matt Keegan is on view at Altman Siegel Gallery, San Francisco, through February 5.

Nadiah Fellah is a curatorial assistant at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA).


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